Hitting the Right Notes Across Genres: An Interview With Doretta Lau, Featured Author in Room 38.3, Trespass

Interview by 
Helen Polychronakos

Doretta Lau splits her time between Vancouver and Hong Kong, where she is at work on a novel and a screenplay. She completed an MFA in Writing at Columbia University. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Day One, Event, Grain Magazine, Prairie Fire, PRISM International, Ricepaper, sub-Terrain, and Zen Monster.

In 2013, Lau was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (Nightwood Editions, 2014), her debut short story collection, was shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award, longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and was named by The Atlantic as one of the best books of 2014. Lau has also worked as a journalist, covering arts and culture for Artforum International, South China Morning Post, The Wall Street Journal Asia, and LEAP.

“Best Practices for Time Travel,” a short story she wrote for us, will appear in Room 38.3,Trespass, out this Fall.

Room: How would you describe “Best Practices for Time Travel?”—without giving too much away?

Lau: At the time I was writing “Best Practices for Time Travel”, I was reading Javier Marías and Leslie Jamison, so the story became a sort of speculative fiction essay. Topics discussed: Back to the Future, pornography, dinosaurs, Aamer Rahman, and Granville Street in Vancouver.

Room: Which authors do you love to read, and why?

Lau: The writers I read again and again when I was writing my story collection were Truman Capote, Banana Yoshimoto, Rebecca Godfrey, Lydia Davis, Sam Lipsyte, Wells Tower, George Saunders, Nam Le, Thomas Bernhard, Ed Park, Joan Didion, and Mavis Gallant. Though it isn’t apparent from my writing, I have read all of Jane Austen’s novels more than once—I’ve probably read Persuasion ten times.

I just finished Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. There’s this quality to her prose that draws me in and embeds itself in my consciousness. How does she make studying for examinations seem interesting? Everything she writes about seems so very important, even though in another novel the same content would seem banal. Her cliffhangers remind me of those in R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet.

A few months ago I read Catherine Lacey’s novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, while on a train ride from Brussels to Stuttgart and the voice is magic; I keep going back to it to figure out why her sentences are so thrilling. I absolutely adore Kevin Kwan; China Rich Girlfriend is every bit as great as Crazy Rich Asians.

At the moment I’m conceptualizing a postcolonial crime novel, so I’ve been reading some delightful page turners: The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino, and Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll.

Everyone needs to read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. He says everything we need to hear right now about race, racism, and privilege.

ROOM: Music is a theme in “Best Practices for Time Travel.” What role does music play in your life?

LAU: I listen to music when I’m writing, when I’m cleaning, when I’m commuting to work—it’s like I’m in control of the soundtrack of the movie of my life. For a few years I wrote about music and kept the worst hours even though I was sober the entire time. When I think about it, I’ve met some of my best friends at shows.

ROOM: Wry, witty, deadpan and irreverent—Your stories are full of all kinds of humour. What does humour mean to you, and what is your intention for it in fiction?

LAU: Dina Del Bucchia has a great line in one of her poems—I don’t have the book with me in Hong Kong but I think she wrote: “Funny people have the most rage”. I suppose I employ humour because I don’t know any other way to write about life and the things that are dark or difficult. I got it into my head during grad school that my favourite stories have the right ratio of funny to sad, and that if I figured out this secret formula, my fiction would be great.

ROOM: “Best Practices for Time Travel” addresses issues of racism and sexism, as do several stories in How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? What’s the relationship between art and politics, or art and social engagement, or art and morality, or whatever you want to call it?

LAU: It’s funny, I don’t really think of myself as political in any way, but I guess it’s impossible to write about racism and sexism without taking some sort of position. In some ways, maybe it’s a lie to say that I don’t think about art and politics because I made a decision to write stories where the characters are people of colour, but rather than questioning their identities they’re just trying to figure out how to be human just like anyone else.

ROOM: In addition to writing fiction, you work as a journalist and have a screenplay in the works. How do you shift from one genre to the other?

LAU: I’m taking a hiatus from journalism at the moment—I just started a job as an editor at a contemporary visual culture museum in Hong Kong. But in terms of shifting from one genre to the next, I just think of it as figuring out the best way to tell a story. There’s always some sort of narrative arc, some emotional note I want to hit. As long as I know what that is, it’s not hard to switch from one form to the next.

Helen Polychronakos is a Room collective member and the editor of Room 38.3, Trespass (out Fall 2015), which features Doretta Lau's commissioned piece “Best Practices for Time Travel."

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